ORKHON VALLEY, Mongolia, May 30 (AFP): Tourism is breathing new life into the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongolian steppes, which has been threatened by modernisation and poverty in recent decades.
Many stockbreeders had drifted towards the capital Ulan Bator during the last ten years, entering a downward spiral of poverty, but tourism is providing an avenue back to their traditional way of life.
Some 140 touristic camps of traditional tents, known as yurts, are strewn across the wide expanse of Mongolia where there are almost as many horses as there are people.
The untouched wilderness of the steppes is drawing increasing numbers of tourists for horse-riding, hunting, fishing or camel trekking across the Gobi desert, and to witness the jewel in the crown of the season -- the Nadaam horse festival.
The Nadaam festival, which is held annually in mid-July in Ulan Bator, is a colourful equestrian gathering which features horse racing, wrestling and archery.
Small Nadaam-style festivals are now being staged around the country to draw more visitors as the revival of polo in the country of Genghis Khan provides another tourist draw.
Fishing, hunting or the revival of polo, a sport of Mongolian origin, are other attractions to lure travellers.
"Between July 22 and 24, 50,000 riders will meet in the Orkhon valley for the championship," said Jumdaan Choimbol, president the Mongolian Polo Federation.
The championship was held for the first time in 2002 and about 30 teams have now emerged in various provinces of the country.
Polo's renaissance sprang from the camp of Monkh Tengir, whose customers are the affluent happy few picked by Christopher Gierke, a German married to a Mongolian who manages the camp during the summer.
"We can accommodate 60 to 80 people during the season, with up to 15 at a time. We do not want more," said Gierke.
But to accommodate more travellers, Mongolia still lacks vital infrastructure. Of the 12,000 kilometres of roads criss-crossing the country, only 12.5 per cent are tarred. Most are dirt tracks.
"Huge work remains to be done, in particular the road and electricity network," Enkhbayar, director of the Mongolian Tourism Board told newsmen.
With 228,000 visitors in 2002, tourism revenue reached 10 per cent of gross domestic product.
After a drop in visitors when Asia was struck by the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus last year, numbers are beginning to pick up again.
"Tourism is a priority development sector for Mongolia", according to the Mongolian minister for Trade and Industry, Ganzorig.
Mongolia is negotiating with Beijing to allow Chinese tour groups to visit the country. A delegation of ten tour groups is expected in July, Enkhbayar said.
The country is also hoping on a project to create a travel corridor between China and Lake Baikal in Russia, and wants to expand its winter tourism, even though temperatures drop as low as -- 40 degrees celcius.
"We are sending people to visit the ski resorts in France," said Enkhbayar who is hoping to attact foreign investment to develop winter sports resorts.
One Frenchman is not waiting. Joel Rauzy, who travelled the world before falling in love with Mongolia, has set up a husky-dog-sled tour business in Ulan Bator.
"I use frozen river beds. The steppes are apparently flat, but in reality they are too bumpy for the sleds", Rauzy said.